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Kerfuffle in Winneconne

When Rachel Honer found out she had been selected to speak at graduation in Winneconne, Wisconsin, she decided that speaking wasn’t enough. She wanted to sing a contemporary Christian song called “He’s Always Been Faithful,” which she would preface with a spoken introduction about how, well, he’s always been faithful. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the school district vetoed the idea, then came up with a clumsy compromise that would have permitted her to sing the song if she substituted the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” in place of “God.” With help from the conservative Rutherford Institute, Rachel threatened to sue. With that, the school district proposed another compromise, which Rachel’s lawyers accepted. She gets to sing the song as written but will not deliver the spoken intro. Now everybody is reportedly happy, and graduation will go off as scheduled on June 8.

Rachel’s mother told the Journal Sentinel, “I am incredibly proud that she has taken a stand and not backed down. God is number one in her life, so how could she talk about anything else?” Well, she could consider the occasion, which is purely secular. She could consider the audience, which is likely to contain many people comfortable with their own beliefs and/or uninterested in hearing about hers. If nothing else, she could consider aesthetics and good taste. You can hear “He’s Always Been Faithful” here. “How Great Thou Art” it ain’t.

The Rutherford Institute makes the point that forbidding Rachel to express her beliefs at graduation is a violation of her free speech rights. As a free-speech absolutist, I am compelled to agree, but I am not compelled to applaud Rachel Honer. Some Christians seem to be afflicted with a sort of religious Tourette’s Syndrome that makes them unable to confine their outbursts to appropriate places and times. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of indulging her ego with pietistic grandstanding, Rachel showed a respect for the beliefs of others equivalent to that which she is demanding for her own? This, alas, is unlikely. To some Christians, respecting the beliefs of others is a mortal sin. If you’re Muslim, Buddhist, atheist–or even insufficiently Christian by the definition of whoever is doing the defining–you’re at best an aberration from the rightful norm, and at worst, a threat to the eternal soul of every Christian on Earth. It’s a short leap from there to a bunker mentality that demonizes other people and encourages eternal, unresolvable conflict between the saved and the damned. And that’s fabulously unhelpful in building an open and pluralistic society, whether in a community as small as Winneconne or as big as the whole world.

As for the most precious part of this kerfuffle, it’s a tie. First, Rachel wasn’t available for comment during the week of the controversy because she was off at Bible camp. Second, Rachel’s mother says that in addition to majoring in music education at college, Rachel is thinking of adding a minor, now, thanks to all this: political science.

Heaven help us.